Journey from war in Ukraine to safety on Vancouver Island

Photo courtesy @NatallkaUKR

December 20, 2022 –  We sit down at the local arena to talk while her two young children are out on the ice, enjoying a public free skate. Anzhela [last name withheld] begins her story.

“We were awakened at 4:00 AM by close friends who said, ‘Quickly, you need to take all your bags and go from Kyiv because war has started!’ “

Anzhela says, “After this call, we stayed lying in bed, me and my husband. We have a very warm apartment, [so] the door to the balcony is always open. We live on the top floor. And suddenly [through the open balcony door], we see in the sky these military planes — one, two, three… So loud!” Anzhela says, “You understand at that moment [that] it’s not a joke, it’s really happening, it’s really started.”

That was February 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, a day that will now live in infamy, a day that has changed the world.

Anzhela and their children, Anna, five years old, and nine-year-old Artem, arrived on Vancouver Island just three months ago, at midnight on September 11, 2022.

This is the story of how one Ukrainian family has been coping with the massive disruption of their lives, and our community’s efforts to help them.

Fleeing Kyiv

“For the first few minutes,” says Anzhela, “we stayed lying in bed.”

“You know, for two weeks, maybe three weeks, all of us, our friends, our colleagues would talk about, ‘If war started, if war not started.’ But,” she explains with mild exasperation, “we needed to live our usual lives! We needed to go to the supermarket, we maybe have some celebrations, maybe a hockey tournament or something like that. Actually, we didn’t have time to think about [what to do] if [war] started.”

Dymtro and Anzhela with their son Artem and daughter Anna, at home in Ukraine.
Photo supplied by family.

“Then my husband said, ‘I need to wash up, to have a shower, I need to get my brain together because I need to understand what we have to do.’ ”

Anzhela casts her mind back over that tumultuous day. “Because, you know, we can’t take all our things. We have little time. It’s very scary at that moment because we don’t understand what happens next,” she says. “Now, I understand that Kyiv was not very bombed that day, and we could have spent maybe one or two weeks there. But in that moment, you can’t understand.”

Anzhela and her husband Dmytro decide they will travel to her parents’ home in Vinnytsia, about 250 km south of Kyiv. A city of 370,000 people known for its universities, Vinnytsia “maybe would be safer, quieter” they thought than staying in their home in Kyiv. The capital city of Ukraine, Kyiv is home to about 3.5 million people, the seventh largest city in Europe.

Anzhela says she and her husband told the children that they wouldn’t be going to school that day, but only said, “We were going to go visit their grandmother and grandfather.” The family quickly packed their clothes, got in the car and left Kyiv.

Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo

“We go from 7 o’clock in the morning,” says Anzhela. They weren’t alone in fleeing the invasion. “All people go. [There were] so many troubles on the road, people nervous, rushed, long lines in the gas station,” she says. “You could only get 20 litres gas. If you have a big car, what is 20 litres? It’s [normally] a three hour drive, but” says Anzhela, on this day, “we stayed on the road for sixteen hours!”

The sense of humour and resilience displayed by Ukrainians in the wake of the invasion is evident in Anzhela’s recollection of this dark day. “When we got to my parents’ [home], I see that I packed all my perfumes! For what? You know, you don’t know what to do in this moment. Maybe better take warm shoes, but no, you take all your perfumes!” Anzhela says, laughing at herself.

The family stayed with her parents in Vinnytsia for five days, but Anzhela says, “I didn’t feel comfortable. You know, many of my friends still live there, and God bless they didn’t see any bad situation. No damage to house, my parents can live there safely. But I’m nervous.”

Hockey proves to be a salvation

“Life has always some… how do you say… serendipity,” says Anzhela.

Two years earlier, their young son Artem started playing hockey. Anzhela says hockey is not as popular a sport in Europe as it is here in Canada, but Artem enjoyed it and soon began playing tournaments out of town.

“In Kyiv, [for] my son’s hockey team,” says Anzhela, “I was the hockey mother collecting money for pizza, and when we go to another city, I was the woman who booked the hotels, booked the bus if we needed it when the team went to play in other cities. In December 2021 we go with hockey team to tournament in Czech Republic. We meet with parents and coach from Czech Republic.”

Anzhela says, “One week after the war started, our coach speak with coach from Czech Republic. The Czech R. coach says I give number from one man who wants to help all boys from the hockey team. Our coach gave him my number. In my second breath, after this one week [of war], I phoned all the parents from our hockey team and told them we can have a place to live, food, children can go to school, and children can play hockey, like in Ukraine.”

“And this happened,” says Anzhela. “I took 26 people to Czech Republic. This man arranged for us to live in a hotel, all of us, our big community with children, with grandmothers, without our husbands because they can’t go to the border [most men are not permitted to leave Ukraine while the war is on].” Her husband Dmytro returned to Kyiv where he works in communications for a large company, helping to keep the country’s infrastructure working.

In the Czech Republic, “We lived on the top of the mountain and had beautiful views but we didn’t have Internet. It’s so terrible because you can’t always speak with your parents, with your husband, but we understand that maybe it’s good for our mental health because we didn’t always stay all the time on the telephone,” she laughs. “We [women] would cook, speak together, play with children, they go to school, play hockey.”

Family ties beckon but children’s safety is paramount

Anzhela returned to Kyiv in May 2022 to see if the family should resume their lives in their own home again.

“You know, my husband wants to see us, children want to see their father. But I still didn’t feel comfortable,” she says, “because I saw the area [that was hit by missiles] and you hear the ‘wooooo’ of air raid sirens.”

She expresses amazement at the many people who still carry on with their lives amidst war. In Kyiv she says, “Some people still go to drink coffee in a coffee shop [when the sirens are warning of attacks], but for me you know I think to myself, ‘right now, any moment, THEY – CAN – KILL – YOU! And you do nothing with this information??”

Anzhela explains what underpins her reasoning. “You know, I always think, it’s okay, I’m an adult, I’ve lived for 34 years, and it’s my life. I’m not very lucky, born in this country that has met with war. But, I didn’t want it for my children, to have to understand all these things I understand.”

She asks me, “Maybe you know [about] the situation in Bucha and Irpin [towns near Kyiv], this terrible situation with women, with children, that these soldiers do? I don’t want to say bad words about the soldiers because it’s war and I understand that people in these situations, they are like an animal. They have no rules.”

Until the many weeks of the Russian army’s occupation of Bucha ended, Anzhela says, “We had no information about Bucha, only that our army chased the Russian soldiers away. It shocked me for one month — I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t think. I didn’t cry, but I look at my little girl, five years old, and I understand that some men, Russian soldiers, can do such terrible things with this little angel? Why?? Why wouldn’t he take a woman, why little girls? I don’t understand it,” she says, her despair raw and plain.

Quietly, fiercely, Anzhela tells me, “I want to use all my power so my children don’t have to experience this. For me, I couldn’t [return to live in Ukraine during this war], so I go back to Czech Republic.”

On July 14, the city of Vinnytsia, where Anzhela’s parents live, was bombed. The centre of the city was attacked with three Russian cruise missiles. Missiles hit the local NeuroMed clinic and House of the Officers, which is currently used as a concert hall. Due to the missile strike, 23 persons were killed (among them three children), 73 were injured and 18 are missing.

From the Czech Republic to Canada
Anzhela, Artem and Anna, Vancouver Island, Canada, 2022. Photo supplied by family.

Another serendipitous move. “One of my friends had relatives in Canada,” says Anzhela. “She wanted to go to Toronto because they live in Toronto. She said to me, ‘I want to get a visa, maybe you want to do that with me?’ “

Anzhela thought, “I had time, why not? Canada is really interesting and maybe if the war stops, [and we return to Ukraine] then we can go to Canada on a vacation. [Before the invasion,] we traveled all over the world, many times to Spain, to Italy to France, to Germany… We had a very good life. It was not my decision [to leave my country].”

Her friend never did apply for a visa, but Anzhela did. “I got a visa for me and for my children.” But, for what, she thought? What would she do with it? “I started to read about Canada, what people do there, how people go to Canada, what are the problems, does Canada give some support for Ukrainians [seeking safety from the war]?”

She recalls “One day I was searching the Internet. I found a link for Vancouver Island… maybe on Facebook? This site, Help Ukrainians, was from Vancouver Island.”  Anzhela says, “I write something about me [to them], and I forgot about it. That was in June.”  

In August, Anzhela received a letter from a volunteer working with this Vancouver Island group. They said, “We will help your family, what do you want?“ Anzhela was confused, astounded. “What do I want? What do I want??” Anzhela laughs. “Right at this moment, I don’t understand, what do I want?” She thought, “What did I write? That was months ago.“

The Help Ukraine Vancouver Island Society is a volunteer-led organization supporting displaced Ukrainians arriving on Vancouver Island in search of safe sanctuary. Together with partner agencies, they direct and assist Ukrainians in creating decent and safe lives for themselves and their families.

Anzhela and Artem enjoying a public skate at the local arena, November 2022.

When Anzhela submitted her application to Help Ukraine VI, she wrote about herself, her work, her children, “and I say that my son plays hockey and this is part of his previous life. I say I want him to play hockey in Canada too, [so he] wouldn’t feel the sudden change and ask ‘why are we in Canada?’ [a foreign country]. So many things changed for us, and I wanted [my children] to have more things that are still like [what they knew] in Ukraine.”

Anzhela says, “It’s so funny,” she says, “when they asked, ‘What do you need?’ I don’t know. I forgot what I said I wanted! Today, we live closer to a hockey arena in Canada than we did in Ukraine.”

Anzhela wasn’t planning to move to Canada. “I always used to, how you say, manage my life,” she says, “but I understand that, after the war started, I can’t manage my life in all things. I thought, if [the visa] goes ahead, then okay.” It did. Then volunteers from Help Ukraine VI put her in touch with a host family in our community. After speaking with the host family several times, Anzhela says she thought, “you need to go because people invite you.”

“You know, it’s a very big decision,” says Anzhela. “Before I bought the tickets, I decided [we would return] to Kyiv for two weeks because I wanted to understand [something about myself], why aren’t you this brave, why can people live here again and you didn’t?” She says she was “always nervous… always listening [for the] siren. I say to my husband, we need to go to the basement [for protection from missiles]. My husband says, ‘Anzhela, it’s okay. There’s so little chance… more people die in car accidents’ [than a missile strike]. But, I can’t [relax].”

The long shadow of history

Anzhela tells me, “My grandmother… was born in 1927 and she went through the Second World War. One of the main [reasons] that I go to Czech Republic and then I go to Canada [is] because I didn’t want for my children what happened to my grandmother. My grandmother was a beautiful woman, kindest woman that I know, but she lived with stress all her life. She didn’t have food to eat when she was a child, always hungry.”

In 1932-33 an estimated 7 to 10 million Ukrainians perished in a man-made famine perpetrated by Russian leader Joseph Stalin, in what is called the Great Famine or Holodomor, recently recognized by the European Union and other countries as a genocide.

Anzhela says that her grandmother “ate standing up, eating very quickly. She cooked so beautiful, so delicious but she couldn’t relax, couldn’t sit down at the table and eat like normal people. [It affected] her whole life. Five years of war. She lived 91 years but her whole life she always ate so quickly because of this distress. You know, if you can put more food in your mouth quickly, you can then have more. [My grandparents] always had lots of food [stored] in the house [after the war], pasta, sugar, flour… because they understood what it was like [to be starving], and that one day it could get worse again.”

“One of the things I understand,” says Anzhela, “is that maybe we don’t have to die… that maybe we can live like free people. It’s one of the [most] important things. This was a very hard decision. We have a new apartment, a good flat in one of the nicest regions of Kyiv, it’s very beautiful there. I leave the things that I have in our own home, and I understand that life in Canada is so expensive, but I think about maybe our life could be different.”

A ferry to Vancouver Island delivers kindness, a job and a future

“It took three days,” says Anzhela. “My children and I went from Czech Republic to Paris by bus. Then from Paris to Montreal, spent one night in Montreal. We flew to Vancouver and spent one night in Vancouver, and only then, on September 11, we take the ferry to this place,” Vancouver Island, where they meet their host family.

Confusion reigns. “The first two weeks, I can do nothing,” she says. “‘Where are you? What are you doing?’ people ask. ‘Go to school, take these documents, those documents, we need your credit card, your debit card…’ What is the difference between debit card and credit card?” she laughs. “Lots of change. It’s a different time zone. I want to sleep during the day, and [I] have more energy in the evening.”

Artem and Anna in Halloween costumes trick or treating in Qualicum Beach, BC on October 31, 2022.
Photo supplied by family.

“When people ask me about the future, I tell them, ‘Don’t ask me about the future because one day I have a very big future, but not now,’ “ she says, laughing.

“I had a good job in Ukraine, financial manager in a large distribution company,” Anzhela says. “I have my education, I know that my English is not so good, but I know that I can take work, in the back office, not with clients.”

“My very big luck, two weeks ago, an accountant in Nanaimo gave me a job. It’s not so easy because you need to go out in the morning and don’t come back until the evening, and my children wait for me, but I am so happy that I got this job.”

“It’s hard for me because it’s a technical language, it’s not, ‘Do you want [something] to eat, to drink?’ You need to think about nouns, you need to think about difficult words in another language. Sometimes it’s not easy. Sometimes you get down and think, ‘No, this is too hard, you can’t do it.’ But sometimes you need to take yourself by the arms and say, ‘You need to do it, you can do it.’ You need good concentration. It’s stressful for me, it’s hard for me, but I’m still happy. I’m very lucky.”

“I don’t know,” says Anzhela, “maybe I have a good karma in my previous life. I meet so many people in my life. Many friends, many people help us. They see that Artem and Anna didn’t understand English very well and they need to practice. Artem’s hockey team have been so kind. I didn’t have to pay for Artem’s hockey equipment. Anna goes to ballet school in Qualicum Beach. The director of the dance school said Anna can attend classes for free. ‘I want to help you,’ she said.”

Back home in Kyiv, her husband Dmytro bears the burden of separation from his family and, recently, increased missile attacks.

To live your whole life, not just a little part

“We speak every day,” says Anzhela, “but now they didn’t have electricity and problems with heating too.” But they make do, resilient in the face of a brutal invasion. “I speak with my husband. I speak with my friends, I speak with my parents. All of them always joke, always laugh.

Kyiv, Ukraine, before Russian invasion. Photo

“Two days ago, my husband said, ‘Oh, in our house I didn’t have electricity, I need to go work in a café. I go to McDonald’s but McDonald’s is full. I go to another place, and it’s full too. So I think, ‘I need to go to the richest [most expensive] restaurant [which will have fewer people] and maybe use that place.’” Anzhela explains, “They joke about this stuff. They joke.” It’s a way to make their present lives more bearable.

“Some people ask Ukrainian women, ‘Why do you [still] spend money for manicure, pedicure [during a war]?’”

“Very simple. They need to do it. It’s so important to dream, to live your whole life, not just a little part. You understand what I want to say?”

Then she laughs and says, “My monologue.”

A subscriber sent us this YouTube music video after reading Anzhela’s story, a very timely and fitting tribute to the people of Ukraine based on the song American Pie: — Editor